Thursday next is Thanksgiving – first proclaimed by George Washington in 1789 and formally established as a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln in 1863.
None of us should need a special day to count our blessings or express gratitude. Still, Thanksgiving is a special American celebration – dating back to the Pilgrims’ landing in Massachusetts in 1620. Each year, it kicks off a joyful day of food, family, reflection and, for many, football.
Humorist and iconoclast Erma Bombeck put the day in perspective when she said, “Thanksgiving dinners take eighteen hours to prepare. They are consumed in twelve minutes. Half-times take twelve minutes. This is not a coincidence.”
For some Thanksgiving is not a day of “family and friends” but of “family and feuds” that are inevitable when Crazy Uncle comes for dinner. But for most of us, it is a time of fellowship and camaraderie – especially if Crazy Uncle holds his tongue and everyone else agrees to take a timeout on issues related to politics, global warming and Russian collusion.
Thanksgiving is not just a holiday. For many it is also a folk festival that extends into the weekend. For example, the holiday includes Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, generally regarded as the first day of the Christmas shopping season. That’s when retailers offer special reduced prices to lure shoppers to the malls on a day that would be otherwise be devoted to relaxation and conversation or, in some families, trimming the Christmas tree.
Having lived for extended periods in Europe and Australia, it is my experience that non-Americans are most fascinated by the American celebration of Thanksgiving. In fact, the late and respected journalist and one-time White House Press Secretary, Tony Snow, reflected this view when he said, “If you think Independence Day is America’s defining holiday, think again. Thanksgiving deserves that title, hands-down.”
Indeed, many will visit the US in November just to share a Thanksgiving holiday with an American family, including, of course, a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. In addition to guests from Japan and Australia in previous years, this year we will have guests from Great Britain, the grandparents of our son’s fiancée, who was born and raised just outside of London.
Thanksgiving is special for those in their bonus years because it’s a time to unpack family traditions.
Like others, we have family-centered Thanksgiving traditions. We begin by inviting our grandchildren and their parents – along with our adult children and their partners who, in turn, often invite one or two of their friends.
Another tradition: We invite friends or neighbors whose own families are far away or absent for some reason. Thanksgiving is not a time that should be spent alone. The original Thanksgiving, after all, was a community affair – a time to celebrate blessings that had been enjoyed by the entire group that landed on Plymouth Rock the previous December, nearly 400 years ago.
There is also a tradition around “when does it all begin.” In our house, everyone is informed that they are expected “any time around 1:00 pm” – unless, of course, they want to come earlier – and that Thanksgiving dinner will be served “sometime around 3:00 pm.” That kind of guidance gives those coming and those in charge a lot of flexibility.
There is also a dinner table tradition. It includes, of course, giving thanks and asking God’s blessing and then a reading to help us remember the original Thanksgiving and why this uniquely American holiday is celebrated.
After people have packed their plates with turkey, stuffing, cranberries, candied sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top, buttery mashed potatoes, giblet gravy, green bean casserole and the like, each guest at the table is given the opportunity to describe a memorable Thanksgiving.
Even with the “regulars” it is interesting to note how the “a memorable” Thanksgiving often changes from year-to-year. The changing stories are a testament to how the experience of life – even one more year – can change our perspective on our own past. It is quite remarkable.
For first-timers, their “memorable” Thanksgiving story is always something new, fresh and interesting – giving the rest of us around the table a new window on the life of a friend.
We will also ask those around the table to talk about the ways they were blessed this past year. Some will talk about a specific event or experience – like getting engaged or repairing a relationship; others will talk about a general category of things – like continued good health or the blessing of living as an American, in freedom.
On Friday after Thanksgiving we have another tradition. We don’t do the Black Friday, shopping thing. Instead, we usually spend the day reading, talking and playing with the grandchildren. Then after an early dinner of left-overs (what else?), we pack up a car or two and go to the movies. This year we’ll probably go see the new release of “The Grinch” by Dr. Seuss, barring some last-minute change.
So, Thanksgiving is not only a day to celebrate and express gratitude for the many blessings of a year gone by, it is also a time to refresh relationships with family and friends, host new people, and experience the larger culture –e.g., by reconnecting with our history and, for some, through film, one of America’s greatest and most successful inventions.
A really good Thanksgiving will even include vegans. Why else would we have zucchini bread, carrot cake and pumpkin pie?
Or, in the words of Dr. Seuss, “You ought to be thankful / a whole heaping lot / for the places and people you’re lucky you’re not.”